Catholics are pretty easy to spot on Ash Wednesday when literally wearing their faith on their forehead in the form of a cross of ashes. And there are many of them to be spotted, according to the website AmericanCatholic.org that reported Mass attendance on Ash Wednesday is higher than any other holy day of the year, other than Christmas.
The practice of sprinkling one’s head with ashes as a penitential act appears as early as the Old Testament—as described by Mordecai, Job and Daniel—and has been a formal custom of the Church marking Lent since the 11th century.
“When we receive ashes we are participating in an ancient practice that was first associated with entry into the Order of Penitents,” Archbishop Samuel Aquila explained in a previous Denver Catholic Register column (“Lent beyond the ashes,” March 4, 2014).
The movement known as the Penitents goes back to the fourth century and came into existence for those who had committed a serious sin after their baptism. The penitent would confess their sin, receive a penance from the bishop or his delegate and then be enrolled in the order, the archbishop explained.
When they entered, penitents would receive ashes on their head, be given a prominent location to occupy in the church, and put on special garments to mark their state of penance. Penance could include pilgrimage to holy sites, constructing and repairing churches, and caring for the poor and sick.
“The penances could last a few years so that a true, deep conversion of the heart could occur,” he wrote.
As the devotion to penance and repentance for sin grew, so did the formal liturgical rite.
“There can be no doubt that the custom of distributing the ashes to all the faithful arose from a devotional imitation of the practice observed in the case of public penitents,” according to the Catholic Encyclopedia.
The first record of the formal “dies cinerum,” or “day of ashes,” was described in the earliest existing copies of the Gregorian Sacramentary ritual book and is believed to date back to at least the eighth century, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia.
On this day, the faithful, according to ancient custom, were encouraged to approach the altar before Mass, and there a priest, after dipping his thumb into blessed ashes, marked their foreheads with sign of the cross, saying: “Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.”
The ashes used in the ceremony were made by burning the remains of the palms blessed on Palm Sunday the previous year, a practice that continues today. The ashes were sprinkled with holy water and fumigated with incense. A penitential procession often followed the rite of the distribution of the ashes.
At the beginning of the 11th century, English homilist Abbot Aelfric of Eynsham implied the use of ashes by believers before Lent saying, “in the books both in the Old Law and in the New that the men who repented of their sins covered themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast.”
After the Synod of Beneventum in 1091, Pope Urban II established the use of ashes on the Wednesday before Lent for Catholics everywhere.
“When we receive ashes, we are engaging in a form of penance that visibly humbles us,” Archbishop Aquila wrote. “We acknowledge that we are sinners, unfaithful to the Lord and the commandments he has given us.”
Check parish bulletins and websites for Mass schedules on Ash Wednesday.
Feb. 18 | Marks the beginning of Lent